Obedience to Good News of God's Word
Obedience to Good News of God’s Word
Typically, on the Fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, the great example of repentance. This year St. Mary of Egypt got bumped from the dance card. Why? Because the Great Feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, which we celebrate March 25th each year, fell on this, the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Why is the Annunciation Feast so important? For several reasons actually:
First, the Greek word for Annunciation is ‘Euaggelismos’. This word is directly connected to ‘Euaggelion,’ the Greek word for Gospel. Do we know what Gospel means? Gospel refers to the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, ‘Euaggelion’ literally means “the good message or good news.” Thus, ‘Euaggelismos’ is the “announcing of the good news.” But what is the good news? Or, what is the news and why is it good? The news is revealed to us in the Gospel passage of today’s Feast, taken from Luke 1:24-38. We hear the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary (vv26-27). The news is that the Lord is with her (v.28), and she will conceive the Son of God, named Jesus (v.31), by the power of the Holy Spirit (v.35).
The news is good because the name Jesus means “God saves.” The Archangel Gabriel specifically told Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, that this Jesus “will save His people from their sins.” ‘His people’ refers to all of us, the whole human race. The emphasis on goodness of this news is furthered by the fact that the first word the Archangel Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary is “Rejoice!” (xaire in Greek). The Apolytikion of the Feast emphasizes this: Today marks the crowning of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery before all ages. For the Son of God becomes the son of the Virgin, and Gabriel proclaims the grace. Wherefore, we also cry out with him, "Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you."
The second reason why the Annunciation Feast is so important is the example the Virgin Mary sets for us. How did Mary respond to this Good News that she heard from the Archangel Gabriel? In the last verse of the Gospel, she says, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (v.38). In other words, Mary says “Yes! I will do what you are asking me or telling me to do.” Last week we talked about the importance of obedience to God as a means for communion with Him. What greater example of obedience do we have than the obedience of the Virgin Mary?
Some people think the Virgin Mary didn’t have a choice, that God made her become the mother of Jesus. However, as I emphasized last week, God never makes us do anything. He respects our freewill—to love and obey Him, or to refuse and reject Him. So, Mary indeed did have a choice, and her yes to God sets in motion the means of the salvation humanity. Mary’s obedience undoes the disobedience of Eve, who was betrothed to Adam. Their disobedience to God brought sin, alienation and death into existence. Mary’s obedience brings life, it brings the Life, Christ our God into existence as a young human child in her womb. Mary’s obedience is a prototype of her son Jesus’ obedience to God the Father, even unto death on the Cross, so that through His resurrection, He may bring new life to all of us.
Last week, when we talked about obedience, we did not talk a lot about disobedience, but we did mention how sometimes our natural instinct is to resist or rebel when asked to do something. It starts when we’re young. A toddler’s defiant “No!” to a parent’s seemingly simple request is the first sign of the resistance to come. Psychologists will tell you that this first ‘no’ is the beginning of self-identity, a realization of one’s own existence apart from another. This is true, and thus every ‘no’ thereafter is seen as an assertion of one’s own self in the sea of other selves out there. Defiance is seen as one of the main ways to express of my unique self. Consequently, to say ‘yes’, to cooperate, or to obey, is sometimes seen as way I lose my identity or even my very existence. However, we all should know that this model, strictly applied, never works. Taken to the extreme, “my existence is more important than your existence,” leads to strife, violence and death.
In the Old Testament, when Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, he came to Mount Horeb, what we know as Mt. Sinai. There an angel of God appeared to him in the flaming fire of the burning bush (Ex.3:1-2). This is where and when God spoke to Moses and told him to go and free the Israelites from the Egyptians. In the writings of the Church Fathers and in the iconographic tradition of Orthodoxy, the burning bush is seen as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. Why? Because when the bush was burning with the fire of God, it was not consumed, nor destroyed. In the same way, the Virgin Mary, when she was filled with the fire of the Godhead, when she accommodated Jesus in her womb, she was not consumed, nor destroyed.
The burning bush of Mt. Sinai and the Virgin Mary herself show us in the strongest possible terms, that when we are obedient to God, we do not lose our identity, nor do we lose our existence. In fact, when we are obedient to God, we fulfill our identity and existence. We find our true self as God created us to be, each in our own unique expression, but cooperating with God and each other for His glory.
The third reason that the Annunciation Feast is so important for us Orthodox Christians is that it demonstrates the primacy and power of God’s word. As soon as Mary said yes to God, at that very moment, the eternal Word and Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, descended and took on her humanity to become the child Jesus in her womb. We often overlook that God shares or reveals Himself to us through His Son, the Logos, the Word. We also often overlook the Annunciation itself is about a word or words, a written or in this case oral message.
Communication requires a sender, a message and a hearer. In the Annunciation, God is the sender, the Good News is the message, and the hearer or listener or receiver is the Virgin Mary. Without any one of the three, communication breaks down. In the case of our relationship with God, communion breaks down without us imitating the Virgin Mary; without us hearing the Word of God. Words are powerful. They can build up and they can tear down. God’s Word always builds up because it is always true, and it gives life. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This choice is exemplified by the two thieves crucified with Christ. One mocked and blasphemed Jesus and sent himself to eternal destruction. The other, Dysmas, whom we commemorate today, said, “Remember me O Lord when You come into Your Kingdom,” and he went with Christ to eternal life.
In the Oikos of today’s Feast, which is repeated several times at the Friday Akathistos services during Lent, Gabriel says to Mary, “Rejoice, the one by whom creation is re-created; Rejoice, the one whom by the Creator is created.”
Let us close today with another little-known fact or at least one that is often overlooked. In his recent reflection on the Mystery of the Virgin Womb, John Panagiotou points out the following. It is interesting to note and no coincidence at all that in the Patristic literature [and in the liturgical texts of the Church] the Holy Spirit is often referred to in technical terms simply as ‘Panagio’ in Greek. And the Virgin Mary is referred to as ‘Panagia’ in Greek. Both terms literally mean “All Holy” but the referring to Mary is feminine, ending in ‘a – alpha’, and the one referring to the Holy Spirit ends in ‘w – omega.’ So, there you have it, alpha and omega, beginning and end. Start by imitating the Virgin Mary to hear the word of God, then you will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and be able to bring Christ into the world though your thoughts, words and actions. Jesus said in the Book of Revelation, 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord,[b]“who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev.1:8). Interestingly, during the Liturgy, right before we proclaim the Creed, the clergy say to one another, “Christ is in our midst.” And they then respond to each other, “He was, He is, and He forever shall be.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we wish to become holy as God is holy, which is exactly what He wants and asks us to be, then we must imitate the Virgin Mary. We must hear the word of God’s Good News, and we must become obedient to it. God depends on us to help further His good will and purpose throughout the world of His creation. He asks us to become His co-creators, He does not force us. If we are disobedient, we do not become co-creators. We become agents of destruction. However, when we are obedient, the Good News is spread and creation rejoices because life abounds. Amen! Blessed Feast of the Annunciation!